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Extreme Makeover IT Edition

With a new IT governance model that puts faculty front and center, the University of Michigan hopes to reclaim its reputation as a next-generation institution.

Illustration by Scotty Reifsnyder

Air-traffic controller might be a relaxing second career for anyone who's coordinated IT operations at a large research university. Just ask administrators at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. As at most big universities, IT operations on the academic side are decentralized on a major scale. When a faculty member in one of Michigan's 19 schools or colleges identifies a need that can be served by technology, a separate dedicated IT group researches and implements the solution. As a result, the institution excels at redundancy: A 2010 Accenture consulting project counted more than 40 e-mail services running on campus; 26 lecture capture systems; 42 ways to stream media; and 28 approaches for sharing documents.

During good times, such an approach might be acceptable. But in an economic downturn, nobody tolerates that kind of waste. So, a little over a year ago, Michigan began a process to impose structure on the chaos. A new consultative-governance model was established that promises to transform how IT is funded and delivered to academic units, while ensuring better alignment with campus priorities.

Of course, the university expects to hit a few potholes along the way. IT leaders must treat the low-grade fever of anxiety gripping the IT staff, even as they figure out how to maintain tech services without interruption. And, perhaps most challenging, they must rely on the new faculty-led governance model for future IT decisions, even though it's not fully tested. As one participant put it, "We need to build the bridge while we walk across it."

If successful, Michigan's governance initiative may provide a playbook for other large universities with faculty-led cultures that need to optimize IT spending. At the very least, the work being tried at Michigan will provide fresh ideas on how to involve faculty and other campus constituents in IT decisions.

Inside the Clockworks
Until Laura Patterson was appointed CIO in March 2009, nobody had held overall responsibility for campuswide IT for at least a decade. With the state's budget woes spilling over into higher education, however, the University of Michigan's administration was looking for change--specifically, says Patterson, for ways to introduce next-generation technologies that would give the university a leadership advantage.

"Frankly, we'd been in a period of pretty intense competition for top researchers, especially from the private universities that have big endowments," explains Patterson, whose 18-year career at Michigan included a stint as the university registrar.

Even as the academic units ran amok with IT, Patterson implemented a fairly robust governance model on the administrative side. When the economic downturn struck, Michigan administrators saw an opportunity to rally deans around the idea of running academic IT more like it was done on the administrative side. "As one person said, 'We don't want to waste a good recession,'" recalls Patterson.

To prove that this wasn't simply a mechanism for cutting IT costs, the deal came with an alluring reward: The provost told deans that their units could keep any savings. "The dean may choose to invest in new technologies or in new faculty," explains Patterson. "It's the dean's prerogative."

Before any rewards could be handed out, though, the governance structure had to be put in place. Interestingly, the new structure does not match the university's organizational hierarchy. Rather than giving each of the 19 schools and colleges a seat, the governance council is set up according to four mission domains: teaching and learning, research, knowledge, and patient care.

A "highly respected" faculty member acts as a steward for each domain. Each steward puts together focus groups, committees, or other structures to enable interested faculty members to discuss ideas and initiatives--including those that cut across academic programs.

Besides faculty representation, the major IT providers within the campus are also represented, as are students and administrators. Together, they form what is known as the IT Council, with a potential membership of 17. Decisions made by the council at its monthly meetings are vetted both by a university IT executive committee, which meets quarterly, and a university capital committee.

A Starting Place
As one of its first decisions, the IT council hired Accenture to do an IT inventory and to analyze current investment. "We wanted a third party doing the analysis so that it did not represent the bias of any group on campus," Patterson says. The analysis consisted of pulling "huge amounts of data" out of the university's enterprise, financial, and human resources systems, then taking that data to each college and school to find out where it needed correction. In putting together its analysis, the consulting firm conducted more than 200 workshops and interviews.

The goal was to learn how much each unit was spending on IT and how many people it employed to handle its IT operations. As part of the audit, adjustments often had to be made to address differences in how staff members were classified. "A unit would say, 'We also have five people over here doing web development, but they're all classified as communications specialists,'" explains Patterson. "Or, 'You have someone here listed as a business systems analyst, but really she does report writing for the dean.'"

Research areas were especially difficult to nail down, adds Patterson: "Researchers get a grant; they use the grant to purchase hardware; they hire a graduate student to administer it. A lot of that doesn't show up in the enterprise systems because of the way it's coded."

When the final tally was done, Accenture pinpointed a list of redundant projects that it believed could be delivered campuswide by shared service providers. The definition of a shared service provider encompassed four primary organizational structures: central IT, external providers, IT within a given unit, and IT delivered by two or more units working together.

According to Accenture's estimates, the new approach could save the university a remarkable $25 million to $35 million a year. Those savings would come on top of a planned $7 million reduction in expenditures by IT Services for fiscal year 2011.

After Accenture presented its recommendations to the executive officers, the provost immediately took it to the deans. The deans' response, she recalls: "'Let's do it.' It was so compelling."

Through 2010 and into 2011, the IT Council developed a prioritized list of short- and long-term initiatives, and the campus started to implement various projects, including the consolidation and reorganization work itself. To plan each of these initiatives, the IT Council put together a team of people from central IT and the schools and colleges. The team's finished proposal was then taken back to the governance committees and the deans to secure buy-in.

The hope is that the IT Council will serve as a transparent mechanism for fostering ideas that might otherwise never see the light of day. "Undoubtedly, some really valuable things aren't advanced because their champions don't know how to do it," says Deborah Ball, dean of the School of Education and the steward of the teaching and learning domain. "The IT Council could help promote ideas based more on their merits than because their promoters happen to know how to persuade people with money."

For Dan Atkins, associate vice president for research cyberinfrastructure, the IT Council has the potential to rectify some of the university's weaknesses in academic computing, particularly high-performance computing--weaknesses engendered by years of siloed thinking and development.

"People created entire vertical stacks of computing stuff--their support staff, their software-- which leads to redundancies and loss of economic efficiencies," says Atkins, who serves both as the research steward and the chair of the IT Council. "More importantly, it puts up barriers to collaboration and interoperability. There are situations where the technological barriers from one unit to another are demonstrably stifling collaboration between them."

In Atkins' view, the university's old approach to technology was also not very strategic. The Accenture inventory found that the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, for example, had 168 different rooms with various kinds of computer equipment that were consuming excess power, screwing up air-conditioning systems, or sitting unused.

"We wanted to go to more of a horizontal infrastructure," Atkins explains of the thinking behind the IT Council, "where we have a common networking infrastructure to the extent possible, where we have a common server capability, where we start thinking in terms of services as opposed to machines and other hardware, and where we start looking for those services being available not necessarily on campus but other places too."

The Pain--and Promise--of Change
Considering that centralized projects have already worked their way through the new governance model, it would be easy to conclude that the university's various schools and colleges have shelved their individual IT goals. Nothing could be further from the truth. "We have to keep emphasizing the point that we want IT in every school and college," stresses Patterson. "We are not trying to centralize."

Patterson also does not want to sugarcoat the difficulties that come with instituting a new governance model. "I don't want to mislead," she says. "There's resistance and anxiety--a very high level of anxiety."

This anxiety is especially prevalent among IT staffers themselves. An IT employee who is used to providing a service to a college, for example, may find himself moved to a group that now delivers the same service across the university. Some employees find such changes deeply unsettling.

"Some people have said, 'I will leave the university before I work in central IT.' And we have already had some people leave," Patterson acknowledges. "This has been--and will be--the hardest part. What we're really trying to do is get the right person in the right place doing the right thing."

The eventual goal is for these shared services to make up the contents of a service catalog and request system. But the list of available computing services could become as stale as static HTML if the schools and colleges aren't persuaded to use it. That's why buy-in will be so essential among the IT groups distributed among the various academic units. As Patterson notes, "Rather than the unit IT person saying, 'I've got a faculty member who needs x; I'm going to research it and then buy or build it,' we want the unit IT person to say, 'Gosh, can I get this from the shared service provider?'"

Ultimately, though, there are no rules for academic-governance practices at Michigan. Some requests might go to a unit's IT steering committee, which is more focused on shared infrastructure. Others, such as a faculty proposal for classroom instruction, might go to the teaching and learning steward. "We left it totally up to each mission domain to determine how best to bring its community together," says Patterson. "There are different paths depending on the technology."

As a result, she notes, there's no guarantee that the university won't find itself with 40 e-mail systems again. In hopes of heading off that possibility, the university recently installed an enterprise architect who will work with unit IT steering committees and IT providers to make sure that decisions about service offerings can hold up to scrutiny.

"We're trying not to be heavy-handed, because we know it wouldn't work here," Patterson explains. "We just don't operate through mandates."

To gain acceptance on campus, Patterson also believes that the governance process itself needs to speed up. "We're too slow in getting decisions made," she says. "One of the things we definitely need to modify is the decision process. We must figure out how we're going to be more nimble."

The metaphor of building the bridge as they cross it is an apt one for Michigan faculty and administrators. The governance structure is being used not just to define the next generation of technology but also to build the very mechanism to implement it. "One of the things we keep reminding people is that the processes--and even this governance model--are emergent," Patterson declares. "We feel as if we took a risk by recruiting these high-profile faculty members to work with us. We keep saying, 'It's emergent. We'll modify it. We'll tweak it as we go along.'"

Even in the face of the heavy lifting required to build the bridge, Patterson remains hopeful. "Michigan is very, very big on interdisciplinary research, so our faculty work across their academic units," she says. "But our IT has actually been a barrier. If we can change this IT platform, then we will advance the university's work in pretty amazing ways."

Recapturing Michigan's Computing Edge

Dan Atkins is no stranger to collaboration. Among other projects in his 40-year career, he has set up both a research "collaboratory" at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and a national alliance to link academia, social investors, and community organizations to explore digital opportunities. Now associate vice president for research cyberinfrastructure at the University of Michigan, Atkins believes that the new governance structure is essential for fostering a similar collaborative environment on campus. That's why he agreed to become the steward of the research domain--one of four faculty-run domains--and to volunteer for a two-year stint as the chair of the IT Council.

Atkins believes the university was falling behind competitively in its computing capabilities compared with other research institutions. "Although we have faculty here doing outstanding work involving use of high-performance computing, most of this was occurring on external machines," Atkins says. "We did not have as rich a culture of computational discovery as one would expect for a university of this size and research excellence."

Atkins hopes the new governance structure will change that: Not only will it encourage people to find more commonality across fields, he believes, but it will encourage sharing of computing resources. The current centerpiece of Atkins' endeavors is Flux, a state-of-the-art computer cluster. The project is an IT Council-anointed joint effort involving a rich mix of disciplines: Atkins' office; the university's Center for Advanced Computing; IT Services; the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts; and the Medical School. All have contributed money and resources to ensure that Flux continues to grow.

"One of the things we're trying to do is remove barriers and create better resources that will encourage people to relax the thresholds of adoption," Atkins states.

A shared campus resource like Flux will give faculty members a taste of multiprocessor computing power, provide them with the tools and support they need to get started, and act as a stepping-stone to greater computing resources that may lie outside the university, such as NSF's TeraGrid or the Blue Waters petascale computing project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "We'll let people get hooked on the local facilities and capabilities, and then some will evolve into ever-more ambitious use of high-performance computing," Atkins declares.

"In the past, a faculty member would have had to figure out what he wanted, purchased it, installed it--all that," he says. "Now he can get an account number and in five minutes have access to a 10,000-core machine." Because of the support given to the Flux project through the governance structure, faculty members are being awarded Flux time and discouraged from purchasing their own high-performance computers.

Atkins is quick to point out that the concept of resource sharing isn't the same as having a "centrally managed" IT infrastructure. For example, the campus unit with the greatest competence in operating a computer cluster is the College of Engineering. As a result, the college--not central IT--is managing Flux for the rest of the campus.

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